Catalyst Winter 2017
Then and Now

UCS Prepares to Defend Scientific Integrity—Again

By Gretchen Goldman

What should be done about a fast-spreading disease outbreak? How much lead is in that drinking water? What precautions are needed in the face of a dangerous incoming storm? Is that toy or medical device safe to use? Every day, representatives of the US federal government make policy decisions about issues vital to Americans’ health and safety. These decisions require the best possible independent scientific and technical assessments.

Science may not be the only consideration in a policy decision, but the government’s unwavering commitment to the role of science in policymaking is crucial to its ability to respond effectively to complex issues ranging from public health to national security. Equally important, the government’s reliance on independent, impartial science is essential for ensuring public trust in government and for upholding the democratic principles upon which the nation was founded.

Politicization of Science in the Bush Administration

In the early 2000s, the Union of Concerned Scientists began to receive reports that the George W. Bush administration was misusing science. We heard from government scientists across federal agencies that their work was being suppressed, manipulated, or distorted—from drug approvals and educational policies to endangered species determinations and climate change assessments. As an increasing number of cases surfaced, it eventually became clear: political interference in science throughout the government had never before been so pervasive.

The scientific community, initially caught off guard, fought back. UCS organized 15,000 scientists to tell the administration that this disrespect of science would not stand. We surveyed thousands of federal scientists to quantify and document the state of science in federal decisionmaking. We developed detailed policy recommendations—many of which were ultimately enacted by the next administration. We drew widespread media coverage, pushed prominent voices to speak out on this issue, and raised the price of misusing science for political purposes. We called the Bush administration to account and ultimately forced it to walk back several political moves that undermined science.

Progress in the Obama Administration

Preserving scientific integrity in federal policymaking

Due at least in part to our efforts, scientific integrity was high on President Obama’s agenda. In his inaugural speech, he vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and took several steps in his first hundred days to do so. While the work remains unfinished, scientific integrity policies UCS advocated have been instituted at more than 23 federal agencies. Though they vary in quality (see the table below), these policies are designed to guard against the kind of abuse that arose during the Bush administration. Many federal scientists now have more rights written explicitly into their agencies’ policies: rights to share their scientific work with the media and public, rights to review the underlying science in documents before their public release, and rights to share their work in the scientific community. Many policies also explicitly prohibit political appointees and public affairs staff from manipulating agency science, and some agencies have installed scientific integrity officials to oversee the new policies.

Scientific Integrity Policy Scorecard

This table offers a brief sample of the detailed assessment UCS has compiled to measure progress at federal agencies in establishing policies and practices to safeguard scientific integrity. Some agencies have put strong policies in place and put a designated official in charge of scientific integrity, while other agencies lag behind. The new UCS report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking, measures each agency on nine attributes, including communications policies, social media policies, peer review policies, and whistleblower protections, among others. For more, visit www.ucsusa.org/PreservingScientificIntegrity.

We have a long way to go in terms of ensuring these policies are implemented, but we are certainly in a better place than we were eight years ago. The Obama administration laid the groundwork for ensuring greater scientific integrity across the government.

We’re Watching Closely

In the new Trump administration, science in the federal government faces perhaps its biggest threat ever. But this time we’re ready. Unlike the creeping problem that arose during the Bush administration, we already recognize the potential threat to our health and safety and to the US scientific enterprise. UCS mobilized with unprecedented speed to issue a report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking: Lessons from the Past Two Administrations and What’s at Stake under the Trump Administration. The report provides a baseline against which any new problems can be measured. And we have already organized thousands of scientists, including 25 Nobel laureates, to send a letter to the incoming administration explaining the importance of independent, impartial science in federal policymaking, and pledging to monitor the administration closely to make sure this standard is upheld.

We still don’t know how President Trump’s administration will treat science and whether it will be similar to what we saw in the Bush era. But we know that this time we’re in a better position to respond. UCS and the entire scientific community are watching closely and we know how to spot interference if it happens. We know how to organize. We are keenly aware of the proper role of science in our world and we stand ready to defend science, drawing upon our growing Science Network (now more than 20,000 strong) as well as our dedicated 500,000 supporters. Despite the uncertainty of the current political moment, we’ve never been more prepared.

Gretchen Goldman is research director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. Read more from Gretchen on our blog, The Equation.